Study Abroad…Maybe?

call me maybe study abroad

Today’s guest blog is by Kyle Rausch, our resident pop culture expert!  Kyle and I had a chat about  some videos that I saw online and it prompted a great discussion about whether pop culture is a distraction when studying abroad and how our students really use their time experiencing another culture.

“Hey I just met you, and this is crazy…but here’s my number so _____________”

Chances are that if you can finish that line then you were indeed alive and connected to the outside world during the past eight or so months when a relatively unknown Canadian singer took the world by storm with her infectious pop song.  Carle Rae Jepsen’s breakout first single “Call Me Maybe” was this year’s ubiquitous smash hit that had everyone from the U.S. Marines to the U.S. Olympic swim team throwing their light-hearted parodies on YouTube.  It seems there was no denying the plain and simple fun that Carly Rae had brought the world.

Recently, two more parodies hit the net, this time from study abroad participants:

At first glance, these videos just seem to be a drop in the bucket of a played out YouTube phenomenon, however here at Melibee, these videos raised some broader questions about Gen Y and study abroad.

Of course the videos function on one level as innocent fun for a group of American college students during what will undoubtedly be one of their fondest college experiences.  However, what are the cultural implications of carrying out such a project during a study abroad experience?  I have to say, as a recent college graduate/study abroad participant and young professional in international education, I myself was torn between wanting to dance along with these girls in their international locations and use this as a teaching moment.

Though we as international educators certainly want our students to enjoy themselves in what we know to be an incredible life experience, we also want the overarching mission of a study abroad experience to be educational.  Who knows how many hours of filming and editing these parodies took away from allowing these students to see the foreign sites and engage in meaningful cross-cultural dialogue with their hosts. Perhaps more unnerving would be to hear how locals felt about a bunch of American girls clad in their U.S. university gear parading about their hometown seemingly unapologetic about what interruptions they may or may not have caused.  Of course, such a statement might be taking what is just harmless fun to an extreme, but I think these videos are representative of a greater phenomenon that tends to occur when a group of American study abroad students remain together throughout a study abroad experience.  It is very easy to stick with the friends you came with and enjoy the many fun opportunities that await in these locations rather than branch away and get to know locals and develop a significant understanding of the host culture.

I’m the first one to admit I love a good time and want all of the students I work with to go out and enjoy the amazing feeling of being young and abroad with their friends, however I just want to make sure that we as educators are remembering to push our students and to encourage them to remember just how short their time abroad is in relation to developing meaningful cultural understanding. Let’s not give any more of our colleagues a reason to ask whether or not this is ‘study abroad, maybe?’

So, what do YOU think?  Were these videos just harmless fun or does it speak about some greater challenges you have witnessed regarding American students studying abroad?  Let us know if the comments!

About the Author:  Kyle Rausch works for Arizona State University’s International Programs in Tempe, Arizona.  In the past he has served as Immigration Specialist and Passport Acceptance Facility Manager at Florida State University where he is finishing his MS in Higher Education Administration.

  • Gerry Botchoukova

    It would be naive to think that we as educators would be able to fully prevent the making of such videos. While, I do view them as part of a much bigger issue that affects our field of work, these videos are the least of the challenges that come along with the “number one mentality” that we as Americans tend to project while abroad. The conversation in my opinion needs to center around the word “respect” and how one can still have fun while being mindful of his/her surroundings. I am certain that if these videos were made by a diverse body of students (locals, Americans, Erasmus, etc.) we would have interpreted them in a very different way. Perhaps some of us would have given them as examples of cross-cultural cooperation or as the effect of “globalization”. The conversation always comes back to the word respect and how prevalent it is in our society.

    • Missy Gluckmann

      Great points Gerry. We don't really have enough information – as I don't know what type of program this was, if it was a school project (doubtful!), who was involved, how long the program was, etc. I certainly don't mean to be a party pooper about the subject – but it did raise the question of what folks do abroad and how others interpret it. Hopefully the people who made these videos will chime in (PLEASE – we'd love to hear from you!) and tell us more! Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

  • Melissa Rucci

    I studied abroad in the small town of Ortigia, Sicily from January 2012 until May 2012 and about halfway through my time there this song became popular in the U.S. I was dumbfounded when some of the girls in the program began singing it incessantly and YES, making videos for it. It mainly bothered me because, as you pointed out, it didn’t seem as if they were making the most of their time abroad. After reading this article and thinking back on my own personal experience abroad I feel inclined to mention youth and maturity. I was a great deal older than the students I studied in Sicily with and I found that my interests were far different therefore my expectations and what I personally wanted to learn and receive from my time in Sicily was FAR different from many (but not all) of the others. Being an American abroad was the only part of the states I wanted to bring to Sicily, myself. I personally chose to detach myself from American pop-culture while abroad, but many did not and remained stuck in their ways i.e. surfing the web, staying involved with social networking. I am in no way, shape, or form saying that their actions or decisions were wrong or bad. People will take what they want from such experiences. I just personally feel that everyone’s comfort level varies and if remaining attached to fellow Americans and doing “American things” helps some people cope with being far away from friends and family, go for it. I just wanted something MORE. But that’s perhaps just the almost 30 in me talking. Thank you for the great article! And like it or not, ‘Call Me Maybe!’ will forever remind me of my time abroad.

    • It is a catchy tune…and I can certainly understand how it will always be part of your time abroad. Don’t get me wrong – I danced in my seat while posting Kyle’s guest post! I have so many songs that I relate to my travels – but as you said, they are pre-FB and social media, where you had to engage at least on some level. Time are a changing…and maybe this is a way for these young people to memorialize their time abroad? I don’t know. Would so love to hear from them. Hopefully they’ll find their way here! Thanks for sharing your story!

  • No one loves pop culture, and in particular, pop music more than me (heck, I have ‘Spears’ as my middle name on Facebook!) In fact, I have playlists from my time abroad that consist of pop songs (both American and non) that were big during my programs and when I listen to them now I find that it helps me remember my experiences abroad–music is a powerful memory-maker for me.
    The discussion I hoped to start with this post, though, was not meant to belittle these girls’ (or students like them) experience, but rather get us talking about how the tendency for students who maybe are less comfortable with branching out from their American bubble on their own, or possibly losing precious time abroad remaining too connected to life back home. As Melissa, indicates, there are many students who might be traveling without family and at such a far distance for their first time–I’m sure it is quite difficult/scary for them. So knowing that for these students this might be the tendency, how do we proactively combat this in our program design and interactions with students.
    When I look back on my times studying abroad, I have incredible memories, but I must admit that there is some ‘regret’ about not challenging myself to go as far outside my U.S. comfort zone as I probably could have. But alas, some things only come with age and more experience 😉
    Now to go play some more Carly Rae!

    • Melissa Rucci

      From my personal experience what made it the most difficult to break away from American norms and pop culture was the fact that I was living with 3 other American girls. I was surrounded by what I assumed I was leaving behind. But it was inevitable.

      However, one of the boys in the program took it upon himself to rent an apartment and find a Sicilian roommate. Although they couldn’t communicate all that well, he ended up informing us of social gatherings with young locals where we had an opportunity to learn the language better and in turn help them with their English. These gatherings were often very awkward for most of us involved because we just flat out did not know each other’s language. And some students were so shy, they had zero interest in attending these events. But for those of us who dared, we soon found ourselves at least shouting a friendly, “CIAO!” here and there when we passed our new Sicilian friends in the streets. Made us feel like a part of the community.

      I think a good way to combat this (especially if housing with fellow Americans is the norm for most programs) is to somehow find a way to pair a shy student with a more outgoing student in hopes that the more timid individual might tag along and break out of their shell once they realize how much fun everyone else is having. Just a thought. Would love to chat more about this because I have tons to say on the matter, in case you haven’t noticed. 🙂

      • Missy Gluckmann

        So glad you wrote Melissa! I think you are also raising the point that introverts do study abroad – and perhaps how they are processing the experience is different than the social butterflies. Observation is key to learning, and I'm certain that there is a lot of that taking place. Hopefully there is more interaction with locals and less "I made my best friend while abroad" going on – although that is a perk too – but it does result in less interaction and immersion which is supposed to be a learning outcome of programs. Ultimately, it all begins with program design.